In 2000, I interviewed Rush’s Geddy Lee about his solo debut My Favorite Headache and in the subsequent 20 years completely forgot it had happened, until I found the interview in my Dropbox folder. Hey, I did a lot of interviews over the years, especially in those contract writer days when I was Johnny on call, and I had two little kids! Enjoy.
The basic scenario is quite familiar: keystone member of legendary band releases the first solo album of his storied career. But the particulars of Geddy Lee’s My Favorite Headache (Atlantic) are anything but standard. You expect someone in his situation to explain that a crushing desire to express his real self led him to go solo after 32 years and 22 albums with Rush. Instead, he says, “It’s something that I never wanted to do.”
That’s not exactly a ringing marketing slogan, but then Lee has never been about such things. The bass icon has managed to maintain a remarkably low profile for the frontman of progressive rock’s longest running, most successful bands.
“I really have had no desire to draw more attention to myself,” Lee explains. “On top of that, I had no frustrations in Rush as a writer or a player. This happened as a result to having a really long layoff and feeling the need to flex my creative muscles.”
Rush has been on a three-year hiatus, due to drummer Neil Peart’s lack of musical desire following a pair of devastating personal tragedies; he lost his daughter in a 1997 car accident and his wife to cancer the following year. Consequently, Rush has not recorded since 1996’s Tears For Echo.
Several years ago, Lee began collaborating with old friend Ben Mink, a stalwart of the Canadian music scene best known as a producer of KD Lang and Barenaked Ladies. The results are the 11 co-written songs that became My Favorite Headache.
“Ben and I were friends for years but never jammed together until we casually got together in his Vancouver studio when Rush was passing through in ’97,” Lee recalls. “I picked up a bass, he picked up a guitar and we were shocked at the similarity of our feels. We decided to try writing a song and were surprised by how much we liked working together. So we sort of sheepishly backed into doing an album together.”
Mink played most of the guitar on the album, with Lee adding acoustic parts as well as “the obnoxious leads” on the title track. Pearl Jam’s Matt Cameron handled the drums. The tunes will be immediately familiar to Rush fans, thanks to Lee’s unmistakable singing voice and aggressive bass work, but many songs also display a gentler and at times musically simpler side of Lee.
“Two or three of these songs would certainly worked for Rush,” lee says. “Though they may be a bit less histrionic. They have a rock and roll approach that is not too divorced from Rush. But other tunes are earthier and more groove oriented than what we would do. Somewhat to my surprise, I really enjoyed the process and found it nice to do things a little bit differently.”
GW: As you noted, some of the songs on your album sound quite different-from Rush. Was the writing process also different?
LEE: Not tremendously, but there are subtle but important differences. Ben and I have a more similar view of where a song should go than Alex and I do. Alex and I usually come at things from very different points of view, which we work on marrying.
His approach is more riff-oriented, more complex and wilder. Usually that’s a great thing for Rush but working on my own it was fun to be able to pick a groove and serve it, rather than feeling the need to keep shifting as we do in Rush. Neil hates repeating in his drum licks and is always pushing the rhythm.
GW: Was it fun to play with different people after so many years with the same guys?
LEE: It was way fun. I was happy just to be writing again. I can’t go too long without writing some music. It’s a part of me that really has to come out. The things that have come in the way of me working on my own never involved the music. It was always the peripherals, like having to promote myself in conversations like this. I never wanted my life to be “Spotlight on Geddy Lee.”
But things change once the songs are written, because you develop allegiance to them, and you suddenly have something to promote other than yourself. First you want to make the songs as good as you can and then you don’t want just leave them in your closet where no one can appreciate them.
GW: As successful as Rush has been, you have been able to maintain a pretty low profile.
LEE: We’re just not particularly driven by those things. In my own way, I have as much attention as I can handle. I have a good life and other things I like to do, so I’m not 100 percent involved in myself. There are lots of things to do out there in the big, wide world. I’ve been really fortunate to have success with music, which is one thing I do, but I’ve never had any burning desire to dominate the music industry.
GW: Do you, Alex and Neil have any plans to get together?
LEE: Yes, probably early in the new year. We’ll take it one step at a time and see what happens. Alex and I see each other often and talk all the time. Neil has moved to California, so we don’t see him as much, but we correspond via letter or email at least once a month. He is starting to put his life back together and move on and now feels ready to tackle some work. He has not been playing much if any music. At one point, he got on his drums just to see if he still had a feeling for playing. Once he determined that he did, he stepped away again, but I think that right now, he is very interested in getting his chops back in shape.
You have to realize what a spiritually deflating thing a loss of that magnitude is. You have a hard enough time figuring why you want to get out of bed in the morning, much less why you should want to get on your drum kit and make music that is essentially celebratory and rebellious. Rock music is not blues. You need a particular spirit of life to do it well and you just can’t do that if you are not in a frame of mind capable of producing that optimism.
GW: It must have been frustrating to not be able to reach out to him through music.
LEE: Not at all. The whole thing was terribly tragic to me, and it was heartbreaking to have to watch him suffer to that degree. I just wanted to be there as his friend. The last thing I was worried about was whether he should be playing or not. You have to walk before you can run, so you break things down to the basics and try to be a supportive friend and hope that all things conspire to make him a person capable of rebuilding his life and moving forward.
GW: Your bass style is very influential, but its roots are not readily apparent.
LEE: I guess that’s because while a lot of people formed what I do, I thankfully don’t sound like any one of them. Early on, I was influenced by people like Jack Bruce, Paul McCartney, who is a great melodic player, Jack Casady from Jefferson Airplane, John Entwhistle, Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead, Yes’ Chris Squire and [fusion player] Jeff Berlin. I gleaned things from all of them.
GW: Was there a moment when you realized that you were impacting people in a way similar to what those guys did for you?
LEE: A few years ago it became apparent to me that a lot of young bands cited us as a primary influence and I got some nice correspondence. It’s incredibly gratifying to hear that you’ve impacted someone’s musical life in that way. It may be the greatest reward a musician can receive.
GW: What gear did you use on the album?
LEE: My main bass is my early 70’s Fender Jazz bass and I also use two other Custom Shop basses, all strung with Roto Sound round wound strings. They go through three or four different, direct-style devices: a Demeter DI box and/or an Avalon U5; a Palmer speaker simulator; and two different Sansamp units which I switch back and forth between for different top-end distortions. One is a standard guitar unit and the other is a bass line line driver, which is simpler and less over the top.
On stage, I just run that into my Trace Elliot cabinets to create some live bottom end, but on record I never use any speakers. I go straight into the console and keep them on different tracks so I can mix and match the tones. Add a little compression and that’s how I get my sound.